Why you should care
Because wouldn’t it be cool to bench-press your grandkids?
Already struggling with those New Year’s fitness goals? In this original series, Freakishly Fit, join OZY for a look at some of the wildest ways some people stay in shape. Read more.
Robert Drapkin, M.D., in a lab coat, stethoscope draped around his neck, has the kindly affect of a 1960s TV doctor, with empathetic eyes that look just a bit weary. Robert Drapkin in a bodybuilder’s thong? My goodness! Someone must have Photoshopped an elderly visage onto Mr. America’s torso. Ripped and glistening, with veins bulging, he looks at once freakish and awesome. At 72, Drapkin counters any notion that age is the enemy of vitality.
He is also, depending on your point of view, an inspiration for those he’s trying to reach with a gospel of resistance training and wellness, or a shaming mechanism for anyone inclined to feel either sheepish about their post-middle-age physique or hopeless about ameliorating the situation.
Drapkin focuses on the former — at his Tampa, Florida, lifestyle-overhaul clinic and in his 2016 book, unabashedly titled Over 40 & Sexy as Hell. The clinic caters to successful executives prone to overeating and excessive drinking. They’re overweight, tending toward diabetes and, in Drapkin’s words, “want their bodies back.” If the clinic sounds a bit on the woo-woo, anti-aging end of the health care spectrum, Drapkin quickly disavows that. “I don’t know what the word means. ‘Anti-aging’ … how do you measure that?” Then he chuckles. “Well, I suppose a compliment is nice.”
His book, notable for a lack of trendy diet prescriptions and for the frequent citation of scientific studies, lays out a program of sensible eating and weight training to offset the inevitable loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, that accompanies aging.
But why bodybuilding?
In a sense, it was happenstance. When he was around 50, Drapkin remembers looking through vacation photos from a family trip to Cancún. “I said, ‘Who’s the fat guy with the belly and double chin?’ When I got back home, I joined Gold’s Gym, thinking I knew how to exercise because I’m a doctor and I know the principles. But a year later, I looked the same. Maybe, I thought, there was more to this than I understood.”
Yes, professional bodybuilding is a complete freak show.
Drapkin decided to hire a personal trainer, who happened to be Donny Kim, who happened to be a National Physique Committee bodybuilder. Kim, co-author of Drapkin’s book, helped him tweak his diet (more carbs for energy, more protein for muscle, more healthy fats), guided him through the arcane realm of weight training and steered him into bodybuilding.
According to Kim, “Dr. Bob was just an average guy who walked into the gym trying to get fit. It was a very humbling experience for him.” He gravitated toward bodybuilding “because it was a way of setting goals, like some set their sights on running a marathon.”
“I liked it because I was successful at it,” Drapkin says matter-of-factly.
In the two decades since, Drapkin has won numerous NPC regional titles in his age and weight (bantam) groups, including the 2014 Southeastern Competition Men Over 70 and the 2011 NPC Southern States Manuel Mair Championships. After two national runner-up titles, he dropped to fifth place last year. He also shifted his practice from medical oncology and palliative care to become a zealous advocate for healthy living.
The decidedly nonsedentary Drapkin likes to pace as he answers interview questions, while I politely find a way to pose the obvious: Isn’t bodybuilding a freak show?
“Yes, professional bodybuilding is a complete freak show,” he answers. “Anyone on the cover of Muscular Development is on steroids, period. In fact, even amateur bodybuilding is completely out of control in regard to substance abuse.” But then Drapkin reminds me that he’s 72. “It’s not really a factor in the older age groups,” he says. Nor in categories like Classic Physique, which emphasizes old-school aesthetics (small waist, V-tapered build; think Jack LaLanne) versus the modern infatuation with monstrously large muscles. “The all-natural aspect is important to me,” Drapkin says. “I don’t want to encourage steroids.”
Still, the question remains: Does bodybuilding equal fitness? I put the question to Thomas Storer, director of the Exercise Physiology and Physical Function Laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School.
“When asking if someone is fit, the answer should be, fit for what?” Storer says. If the goal is what Storer calls “aesthetic fitness,” then bodybuilding has merit. “But,” he continues, “I have no experimental or substantial observational data that suggest health or performance benefits, particularly long-term benefits, that might come about with bodybuilding.”
Still, Storer sees no harm in it so long as the dietary principles are sound and the regimen includes at least 150 minutes a week of aerobic exercise.
Storer and Drapkin completely concur that enhancing muscle strength through resistance training is important at any age, and that it’s entirely possible — crucial, in fact — for the senior set. Says Storer, “Since aging can result in significant decreases in physical function — though it doesn’t have to — resistance training should be paramount in the older adults’ exercise training routine.”
And Drapkin stresses that he’s really a health guy more than a bodybuilder, even as he pushes his muscle groups to fatigue several times a week in the gym. He also gives equal attention to core work, balance and cardio. He advocates the kind of sensible eating that won’t win him friends in the fast-food industry or sell fad diet books. “It’s a race won by the turtle,” he says. “Train with weights. Watch your diet. Stay educated.” The alternative: “You’ll likely develop a chronic metabolic illness and you’ll be given prescription medications and likely told it’s part of ‘growing old’ when, in fact, it is not.”
There’s no disputing that the man has a magnificent physique, but Drapkin is equally proud of his vitality. “I think I feel more energetic and healthy than anybody my age I know.”